Despite the fact that the Salt Lake City courthouse was just
completed this past August, it was your first commission after starting
your firm in New York in 1997. Why did this one take so long?
Thomas Phifer, AIA: We were invited to participate in a competition back in 1997, but not for the final site that we ended up with. The original program was an addition to the existing courts and it evolved into a new building. In the end, the site grew to include the entire city block behind the historic Moss courthouse. It had to do, in part, with security after 9/11. But it also gave us more freedom in planning. And the delay was active waiting: It allowed us to learn from the other work that we were doing along the way. Being in practice is like being on a journey. The more we began to learn about light, and simplicity, and detail, the more this building began to develop. If we’d done it back in 1998, it would have been dramatically different.
The expanded site gave you far more to work with.
Salt Lake City has extremely large blocks and exceptionally broad streets. If you pair that with the 50-foot security setback, we were able to have our building in a public garden with trees and plantings.
You have talked about the expression of justice in our society through the purity of light. How do you explore that here?
We tried to express a sense of enlightenment: justice transparent, a spirit of openness and accessibility. We tried to achieve that through the building’s skin, or veil.
And not veiled in the sense of hiding something, but veiled in the sense of diffusing light.
Diffusing the light, but also thin, to allow the building to participate in its context. We wanted the metaphor to be transparency to what’s happening inside.
But if the light changes, the transparency changes.
The light and the transparency continually change. As the sun moves around the anodized aluminum louvers, the façade goes from white to silver, transparent to opaque. The building transforms itself.
It’s interesting that this veil is an identifying characteristic
of the building, and yet it varies not only with the direction, but
also with what’s behind it.
We wanted to take this cubic form, this noble, upright, monumental form that has little expression, and to honor the material. We looked at Donald Judd’s aluminum boxes and the simplicity of the volume. It allows the light and the material to be used to its greatest effect. We also loved the screws that attached the plates together. There was a certain honesty in how this was made in a very minimal way. It inspired us to expose the tectonics of the building, to take this simple veil and attach it beautifully to the glass façade and show all of the bolts.
I can’t think of any precedent for enveloping a volume of this size in an aluminum veil.
It took us quite some time to trust that it would work, because this was a very thin, very taut expression. We thought, “Why not let the veil speak in a language to allow you to understand how the building works and mediate between the justice system inside and the city?” So we began to vary the width of the louvers and build up a layered conversation that hopefully made the façade rich. There’s no big architectural message through exuberant form, so the building turns out to be slightly mysterious in a way, for all its transparency.
The simple cube belies a highly complex configuration within,
with three separate kinds of circulation: prisoners, judges, public.
The organization of the building came from a square plan with the public in the middle and the courtrooms in the corners to get daylight. That allowed for private spaces—holding cells, jury deliberation rooms, judges’ elevators and corridors—between the courtrooms.
A person arriving from the street walks up the steps, and comes through the majesty of a three-story-high portal that seems even larger than it is because it is reflective, and into the lobby and then a skylit atrium in which James Carpenter did a spectacular installation that is about light coming down the middle of the building, where the elevator is. You go up, and you’re in the public circulation, and finally you go to the wood-lined courtrooms. The sequence was important.
We had to separate the judges, the prisoners, and the public—three circulation systems without any hint of crossing. That difference is expressed in the veil. The wider louvers shield the most private places: the jury deliberation rooms, the judges’ circulation, and the holding cells and prisoner circulation.
And yet, historically, a celebration of the justice system has
been somewhat ostentatious. That’s also been true of some of the current
crop of courthouses.
Well, for years, we borrowed from Thomas Jefferson and the columns of Monticello. We used that as a symbol of justice. We now have different values and a different understanding of justice. There’s a wonderful voice that this building can speak with, this voice of luminosity, this voice of presence through light, and a spirit of using nothing more than what’s needed.